Hastily composed by: Alec R. Lee
While waiting for some decent movies to come out, how about something to whet your appetites? Any music fans here? I thought so. I don’t even know why I bothered since I cannot even see your reaction to the question (or can I?) but that is beside the point. I feel that film music is criminally underrated in the mainstream. Most people, whenever they hear a score they like in a film go, “Oh yeah, that kinda sounded nice…” and then they don’t do anything else after that. When I hear a score in a film that I like, I pursue it and I add it to my ever expanding collection. If you probably inventoried all of the albums I have, soundtracks would be the dominating genre. This is considered an oddity as most people collect rock music, sometimes jazz, or to my annoyance: dance. Movie soundtracks are an esoteric category on their own but they also can possess an intelligence behind them. I love the fact that composers create musical identities for their film so that they can easily be recognized, sometimes romantically or bombastically. Soundtracks encompass a wide range from subtlety to completely over-the-top. But these scores are composed to accompany their respective film and create a natural flow with the story. It’s a very important part of filmmaking and one that many people, much to my chagrin, overlook. That’s why I made this list: to help any of you expand your horizons should you think that such a genre is not worth your time. These albums are not arranged in any order and they are on this list for a two reasons: they represent a complete sense of mastership, and that I can enjoy every single track on the album as a cohesive whole. Let’s jump in.
I may be cheating right off the bat here but let me explain. I consider John Williams to be the ultimate master in soundtracks and if I had made this list and did not group composers, this whole list would have been composed of John Williams scores, which doesn’t sound so exciting. So, to make amends, I lumped pretty much every notable score he’s ever made into the #1 spot: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Superman, the damn list is endless. If you haven’t been living under a rock all your life, it’s a good bet that you’ve probably heard of John Williams and his technical mastery of every project he’s ever worked on. The man has over 20 Oscar nominations, for God’s sake. If that doesn’t earn the maestro the right to be the most heralded composer in all of film, I don’t know what will.
Just ignore the fact that the picture says “Revolutions,” I mean the whole trilogy. In 1999, Don Davis exploded into the mainstream with his avant-garde score for the Matrix and followed it up with two fantastic successors that presented an original edge to modern scoring. Davis’ use of the orchestra for the Matrix trilogy is rather unique because he plays around with time signatures, tempos, and even playing techniques, an example would be using “rotating brass” as a significant motif for the trilogy. Much like John Williams, Davis’ body of work is mainly orchestral with electronic elements used sparingly at times when Davis collaborates with different composers (Gocoo, Oakenfold, Juno Reactor) for certain cues that fit well with the musical landscape. Davis’ most popular cue, “Neodammerung” from The Matrix Revolutions is a powerhouse of a cue, utilizing every instrument in the orchestra and an epic choir that chants modified Upanishads verses. The same cue is given the dance treatment by Juno Reactor as “Navras” and is actually catchy as a song on its own. It may be a little difficult for people new to soundtracks to appreciate but in time the technical prowess will amaze.
Nope, no Pirates of the Caribbean here! Despite Cutthroat Island’s reputation for many years as the biggest box office bomb in history (a title that now belongs to Mars Needs Moms), John Debney’s soundtrack has been continuously praised from the film community. Weird, I know, but the praise is justified. John Debney, an expert in style emulation, sought to create a score reminiscent of noted composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold with a slightly modern edge. The result? An epic beast of a score that is thematically rich and fills every musical requirement from romance to ball-bursting action. Forget Hans Zimmer’s (and his ghostwriters) misguided attempt at a pirate score, THIS should be the basis for which all pirate score will be based off of. Be sure to listen to the monster cue of”The Battle/To Dawg’s Ship/Morgan Battles Dawg/Dawg’s Demise/The Triumph,” (couldn’t they have trimmed that name down a little?) a relentless 18 minute cue of nothing but pure action. It’s beautiful.
Now I know no one has ever heard this before. There’s a very interesting story about this score. The director of Troy, Wolfgang Petersen, wanted a score reminiscent of the Golden Age of film scoring (again, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was brought up) and he hired, rather oddly, Gabriel Yared. Yared’s specialty at the time were small, piano centered scores that were most certainly not fit for epic films under which Troy was categorized. Petersen was supportive of the decision, however, and Yared constructed his score only to have it pulled from the film after test audiences did not respond well to it. This resulted in James Horner having to step in after Yared refused to redo his work. Horner would craft a functional yet unremarkable score while Yared, still fuming over the ordeal, illegally released the music he had recorded for the film (much to the studio’s shock). And how did the soundtrack fans respond? They absolutely loved it. Yared strayed out of his comfort zone for this and hit the ball out of the park with this score. One would have to wonder what kind of hallucinogens the test audiences were under because this score is that one out of a hundred that is lovingly crafted, sonically flawless, and instrumentally diverse. If you are a fan of an old-fashioned sounding orchestra with a fat brass line and a large choir? Step right up, here is the score for you! Check out the cues “Achilles’ Destiny” and “1000 Ships” for examples of this hidden gem.
Despite only being released last year, Steven Price’s score for Gravity is making waves with the awards circles and for good reason. I mentioned before that this is one of the most original soundtracks that I’ve heard, which is a good reason for anyone to give this a listen. Initial listeners may be put off by the initial focus on sound design techniques in the beginning, such as the use of electronics to make ambient noise than actual music but don’t deter. The score slowly starts to come together as time goes on, culminating in a fanfare symbolizing the journey of the main character. The cue “Fire” represents both the sound design and orchestral parts of the soundtrack but the best cue is “Shenzou,” a cue that ranks among the best of the year. If you can stomach unconventional scoring techniques but appreciate traditional methods as well, then Gravity offers the perfect blend of the two, a score that should not be overlooked by anyone this year.
Despite it not being the best made score out there, or even the most common, Terminator 2 is special to me partly because of the movie’s reputation as my favorite film of all time. This means that I have to give special consideration to the soundtrack as well. Brad Fiedel (now retired) is known for composing many of James Cameron’s films and I consider Terminator 2 to be his best. It’s a purely electronic score that predates Hans Zimmer’s use of synthesized instruments but has a rougher edge to it. There are a lot of sound effects present in the score, like metal pounding or groaning, to simulate the artificiality of the robots in the film. It’s a guilty pleasure, to say the least, but it has an awesome main theme going for it, which in my opinion, is one of the best themes in movies. Try getting that drum line out of your head after a listen, “Bah-dum, dum, da-dum!”
Thomas Newman has a reputation for having a rather quirky sound in his movies. And in a film like WALL-E, then that sort of approach is perfect for the titular character. Newman’s approach to an animated science fiction film gives him a chance to stretch his lyrical muscles. With this, he created a fun little motif to represent WALL-E and a sweeping string/harp combo for his love interest, EVE. It’s a very romantic styled score that does its job of tugging on the heartstrings (or in some cases, arteries) that is tonally carried through the film. You can hear examples of this in cues like “Eve,” “Define Dancing,” and “All That Love’s About.” Newman doesn’t skimp on the action here, (fans of French Horns and muted trumpets will love this) in cues like “Rogue Robots,” and “Tilt” that provide that edge over most of Pixar’s body of work. Apologies to all Incredibles/Up fans, but WALL-E is the best score to come from the production house thus far. You can schedule the lynching for the weekend, I have class on weekdays…..
This should go without saying. This movie must have been a pleasant surprise to the populace because I had no idea it would be as good as it was. Same goes for the music. I have generally associated John Powell to craft action-oriented-bordering-on-the-edge-of-anonymity scores (see: Bourne trilogy and Green Zone). It’s not like Powell had been down this avenue before, he had previously composed music for Shrek and Kung Fu Panda (although he was a co-composer for these) but HTTYD was his first solo effort. And the results speak for themselves. A fantastic main theme, a epic sound (I got to stop using that word, but it’s the only one that comes to mind!) and an electric guitar help sell the feeling of “cool” with the overall sound. I have to ask, the movie is centered around Vikings, so why does the soundtrack have a distinct Scottish flavor? Ah, who cares. It sounds great and it’s all that matters. Be sure to listen to the cues “Test Drive” and “Coming Back Around” for examples of how an electric guitar can sizzle in a movie about dragons.
Ah, nostalgia. It’s been a while since you’ve seen this right? You probably don’t even remember the music. (Pepperidge Farms remembers…..) The point is, this score is worth a revisit. James Horner has done some of his best work on animated films (We’re Back, Balto) and the Land Before Time is his best work to date. Despite what you may think, there are hardly any “cutesy” themes in this soundtrack because the tone of the film is relatively mature (a fact that the direct-to-video sequels savagely violated). This means that James Horner’s score, for the most part, is actually quite dark. You end up feeling uncertain for the majority of the score because that’s what the film wants you to feel. The sad parts are especially sad, the scary parts are equally frightening, and the ending conveys satisfaction that the five main characters have after reaching their goal after a harsh, grueling journey (a journey that scarred kids for life, according to the internets). It’s hard to pick an individual cue from the album as it is relatively short but I’d recommend “The Great Migration” as a starting point (literally) but I consider “Sharptooth and the Earthquake” to be the best. What the hell, it all sounds good and you’ll thank me anyway.
Surprise! I don’t hate Hans Zimmer that much that I would deny him a place on this list. I just get extremely disappointed when he butchers a soundtrack when I know he has more talent than he’s letting on. Rush is a mere glimpse of that talent. Hans Zimmer, thankfully, seems to have limited the number of ghostwriters on this project and from what I can tell, it all sounds like one cohesive presentation. Because the film takes place in 1976, Zimmer opted to utilize a rock-based score with electric guitars, bass, drum sets, the whole shebang. There are times where the score sounds indistinguishable from actual rock music from that era, it’s uncanny. Fans of rock music will certainly flock to this but it’s the more orchestral parts that are the most interesting. Zimmer crafts a simple theme but it’s a very hummable and interesting theme that it refuses to get out of your head. There is an emphasis on percussion that pounds away furiously during dramatic bits, and it’s that relentless drive that ultimately sells this album. Credit where credit’s due, Zimmer has proved that he hasn’t lost his touch….just that he might stay away from superhero scores for a bit, yeah? (With him being involved with the next Spiderman movie and most likely the next Superman movie, I say to myself: fat chance)
Did you have a grievance with this list? Let me know how much of an imbecile I am regarding film scores on this page!
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